Tackling the Obesity Epidemic: Can Social Marketers Make Wellness “Contagious?”

Sep 23

This week, Advertising Age released a fascinating article on current product offerings for the growing number of American consumers who are overweight or obese.  In this eye-opening review of the state of commercial marketing, author Matt Carmichael contends that overweight Americans are “the one growing demographic marketers seem intent on largely ignoring.”

How quickly is this demographic growing?

In 1996, no state had an adult obesity rate greater than 20%.  Today, a staggering 49 states report adult obesity rates greater than 20%.

Combine this fact with findings from a 2010 Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll that discovered few of us really understand what it means to be overweight, and the national obesity situation becomes even more complex.  The poll found that that 30% of overweight people think they are “normal size,” 70 percent of obese people feel they are “merely overweight,” and 39 percent of morbidly obese people believe they are “overweight but not obese.”

More surprising are Americans’ perceptions of weight-loss remedies.    The Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll revealed that Americans believe “surgery” is the most effective weight loss method, followed by prescription drugs, drugs, and over-the-counter diet-food supplements.

Research also suggests that traditional social networks, a linchpin in social marketing interventions, may be a significant driver of the obesity epidemic in this country. A 2007 study by two researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), which created an international uproar” when it was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that “obesity may spread in social networks in a quantifiable and discernable pattern,” depending on the nature of the social ties.

In other words, obesity can (figuratively) spread through our social networks.

According to the study, a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he/she had a friend who became obese in a given interval of time.  Of interest, men had a 100% increase in the chance of becoming obese if a male friend became obese (women had only a 38% increase in the chance of becoming obese if a female friend became obese).

While the UCSD study did not examine if a person’s chances of achieving sustained weight loss increase if he/she has a friend who has achieved similar goals, the study’s findings have potential implications for social marketers. 

For example, the study’s lead researcher has proposed making positive health messages “contagious” among target audiences, much the same way a virus spreads among specific populations.  This approach, discussed in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, essentially calls for public health programs to engage key influencers on- and off-line to participate in the design and implementation of positive health interventions, and spread positive health messages throughout their social networks.

It’s important to note that the insights offered in this blog just scratch the very surface of what needs to be done in order to address the issue of obesity, but action is being taken, and progress is being made.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ and other organizations, through such efforts as the proposed Healthy People 2010 objectives, have taken meaningful steps to begin addressing the obesity epidemic.  But ultimately, the real work begins with changing the minds of the American people.

So perhaps being a member of a social network means not just sharing links or uploading family photos online, but encouraging friends and colleagues to make healthy lifestyle choices capable of “spreading wellness” to us all.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 at 9:41 am and is filed under Behavior Change, Public Health, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Tackling the Obesity Epidemic: Can Social Marketers Make Wellness “Contagious?””

  1. Megan Yarmuth says:

    Great post! In addition to sharing links to healthy recipes and fun workouts on our social media networks, why not tap into our personal networks more often for workout buddies and help keep each other motivated!

  2. Hilary Spence says:

    Interesting and disturbing stats. What can the average person do? Talking to friend and family members about a perceived weight problem is very touchy. Any suggestions??